"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

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Friday, 20 March 2015


Monastic Sites
my source: Travelmania
Christian Monasticism has come to be regulated by religious rules (e.g. the Rule of St Benedict) and, in modern times, the Church law of the respective Christian denominations that have forms of monastic living. Those living the monastic life are known by the generic terms monks (men) and nuns (women). The word monk originated from the Greek word monos, which means alone. Monks did not live in monasteries at first, but they began by living alone, as the word monos might suggest. As more people took on the lives of monks, living alone in the wilderness, they started to come together and model themselves after the original monks near by. Eventually the monks lived in monasteries. Monastics generally dwell in a monastery (monks) or a convent (nuns), whether they live there in a community (cenobites), or alone (hermits). The first non-Roman area to adopt monasticism was Ireland, which developed a unique form closely linked to traditional clan relations, a system that later spread to other parts of Europe, especially France.

 Many people believe that St Patrick was the one responsible for bringing Christianity to Ireland. Although he made a major impact on Christian Ireland he certainly wasn't the first to arrive here. St Palladius was the first Christian to arrive in Ireland sent over from Rome by the Pope in 430AD, two years previous to St Patrick's arrival. St Palladius wasn't as successful in converting the Irish and Celtic druids to Christianity as St Patrick. St Patrick escaped Ireland 6 years after being kidnapped; he became a priest and then a Bishop. He returned to Ireland after having visions to become a Christian missionary and helped spread Christianity to the people of Ireland.

The traditional founder of the monastic movement is said to have been St Finnian of Clonard (548) who had received training in Wales. He was undoubtedly a great founder and teacher. But there were many before him. Patrick's relation to the monastic life is unclear though interesting. Some deny he founded any monasteries on the grounds that bishops came first and monks later. Yet St Patrick was firmly in favour of the dedicated life; he refers to it four times. Most explicit is his statement that, 'The sons of the Irish and the daughters of their kings are monks and brides of Christ'. But even if this only referred to individuals not communities - and this is not clear- for a bishop in the 5th C to be so positive is unusual. His companion St Tassach (470), founder of the church at Raholp just 2 miles from Saul, is said to have spent 7 years on Rathlin O'Birne off the coast of Donegal with other hermits before 500. If so this is of extraordinary interest. St Enda (530) spent many years first as a hermit, founder of a monastery and teacher of many on Inishmore, the main island of Aran Co Galway. St Donard (507) at Maghera Co Down is said to have had a hermit's cell on top of Slieve Donard in the Mountains of Mourne. St Forthchern (5C), who is said to have been a bishop and then a hermit in Meath, may have been the teacher of Finnian. St Buite (523) founded Monasterboice in Co Louth. St Senan (546) evangelised West and South Clare and he and his disciples founded many places around the Clare coast and on the islands of the Shannon estuary. There are also several remarkable women saints from the early period, St Gobnait (5C) at Ballyvourney (Co. Cork), St Arraght (5C) at Killaracht and Monasteraden (both Co. Sligo), St Monnina at Killevy (Co. Armagh) (517), St Brigit (524) at Kildare, St Bronagh at Kilbroney, Rostrevor (Co. Down) and St Ita (570) at Killeedy (Co. Limerick).

St Columba (597) was perhaps the most prolific founder of monasteries of all. Born at Garten in Co Donegal, he was of royal blood, of commanding stature and evidently of great charisma. He eventually left Ireland for Scotland where, from this base on Iona, he evangelised among the Picts.

The Irish monasteries continuously produced large numbers of missionising teachers and scholars in Europe, and remained the center of classical scholarship until the Viking invasions from 875 onward. However the movement founded nearly 150 monasteries outside Ireland from 575 to 725, so clearly the majority of its recruits and teachers did not continue to be Irish emigrants.

Commonly Irish monasteries were established by grants of land to an abbot or abbess, who came from a local noble family. The monastery became the spiritual focus of the tribe or kin group. Successive abbots and abbesses were members of the founder's family, a policy which kept the monastic lands under the jurisdiction of the family (and corresponded to Irish legal tradition, which only allowed the transfer of land within a family).

Ireland was a rural society of chieftains living in the countryside. There was no social place for urban leaders, such as bishops. In Irish monasteries the abbot (or abbess) was supreme, but in conformance to Christian tradition, bishops still had important sacramental roles to play (in the early Church the bishops were the ones who baptized new converts to bring them into the Church). In Ireland, the bishop frequently was subordinate to (or co-equal with) the abbot and sometimes resided in the monastery under the jurisdiction of the abbot.

 Irish monasticism maintained the model of a monastic community while, like John Cassian, marking the contemplative life of the hermit as the highest form of monasticism. Saints' lives frequently tell of monks (and abbots) departing some distance from the monastery to live in isolation from the community.

From 600s AD the Irish monasteries and their schools "multiplied exceedingly", and the three largest monastery/schools in Ireland--Clonard, founded by St. Patrick's collaborator St. Finian; Bangor, founded by Comgall, and Clonfert, founded by the famous Navigator St. Brendan--numbered 3000, 4000, and 3000 monks. There were at least 40 other foundations significant enough to have long histories; one, Clonmacnois, seems to have had 7-800 monks. If the average of the monasteries numbered only 200 monks or nuns, there were nearly 20,000 in the monasteries. The ratio of lay brothers and sisters--from families having their children educated at the monastery schools, craftsmen working for the monasteries, etc.--to monks and nuns was at least one to one; in Gaul in the next century it was apparently often three to one, including the pupils of the school. Thus a monastery population which may have reached 40,000 out of a population total estimated to have been 250,000 (though some 19th Century Irish Franciscan scholars claimed it was much higher). This gives an idea of an extraordinary "education density" in that society, and also an idea how such large numbers of Irish monks missionized Scotland and Northumbria (beginning with Columba in 565) and then the huge territory of Gaul (beginning with Columban sometime between 575 and 590). "All saints whose origins could not be traced, were supposed to have come from Ireland," says Montalembert.

 Irish monastic rules specify a stern life of prayer and discipline in which prayer, poverty, and obedience are the central themes. Yet Irish monks did not fear pagan learning. Irish monks needed to learn a foreign language, Latin, which was the language of the Church. Thus they read Latin texts, both spiritual and secular, with an enthusiasm that their contemporaries on the continent lacked. By the end of the seventh century, Irish monastic schools were attracting students from England and from Europe.

Irish monasticism spread widely, first to Scotland and Northern England, then to Gaul and Italy. Columba and his followers established monasteries at Bangor, on the northeastern coast of Ireland, at Iona, an island north-west of Scotland, and at Lindisfarne, which was founded by Aidan, an Irish monk from Iona, at the request of King Oswald of Northumbria.

A few years after Columba went to Scotland, Columban (or Columbanus) with 12 disciples crossed from Ireland to Gaul, arriving on the Coast of France (I think in 575; there are several possible dates) establishing their first foundations in the valley of the Seine. Now came the turning point, and an even greater flowering of the Augustinian monastic movement and its schools.

The Irish by 625 had founded 80 monastic centers in Ireland, Scotland, Northumbria and Wales. The most important were Bangor and Armagh in Ulster; Clonard in Meath; Glendalough in Leinster; Lismore in Munster; in Connaught, the west of Ireland, Clonmacnois and Clonfert of St. Brendan the Greek scholar and navigator of the North Atlantic (the Irish monks regularly sailed to Greenland, and probably at times to Newfoundland); the important schools in Scotland and Britain are named just above. Now, between 575 and 725 in Continental Europe, the Irish monastic movement founded 113 monasteries and schools in France and Switzerland; 26 in Germany, 10 in Austria, and three in the north of Italy. Several thousand monks followed Columban from Ireland, and already by the time of his death in 615, he and his immediate followers had founded 40 monasteries and begun to establish the same teaching process throughout this huge region, formerly Roman Gaul, now the Merovingian kingdoms of Neustria, Austrasia, Armorica (Brittany), and Bavaria, the region the Lombards had conquered, and the regions of the Frisians and Saxons east of the Rhine. This is the future Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne and successors to the 12th Century. The map shows the extraordinary spread and density of this Augustinian teaching movement during this time. Looking at this map of the "Columban" movement, think by contrast of the relative handfuls of Benedictine monasteries founded in Italy and Spain by the order of St. Benedict from 500-650; recall that by 725 all of the Columban monasteries had become Benedictine under instruction of Gregory and his successors in Rome (evidently without any dispute or resistance). It is clear that the "Columban" movement is the origin of the universally dominant Benedictine monastic order of the 8th-11th Centuries.

l A whole series of new rural monastic foundations on great rural estates under Irish influence sprang up, starting with Columbanus's foundations of Fontaines and Luxeuil, sponsored by the Frankish King Childebert II. After Childebert's death Columbanus traveled east to Metz, where Theudebert II allowed him to establish a new monastery among the semi-pagan Alemanni in what is now Switzerland. One of Columbanus's followers founded the monastery of St. Gall on the shores of Lake Constance, while Columbanus continued onward across the Alps to the kingdom of the Lombards in Italy. There King Agilulf and his wife Theodolinda granted Columbanus land in the mountains between Genoa and Milan, where he established the monastery of Bobbio.

Columban, like Columba, was devoted with music and poetry. He was so concerned with the beautiful singing of Psalms by his monks that his Rule varied the number of Psalms sung at Nocturnes and Matins year-round, according to the change in the length of the night; and specified the singing of all of the Psalms in the course of each week. Columban wrote a monks' boating song for travelling on the rivers of Europe or across to Ireland, known as the Carmen Navale, or Song of the Boatmen, which has stanzas of two rhyming lines and a repeated, highly rhythmical third line.

Vikings started attacking Irish monasteries famous for learning in 795 A.D., even though monks sought to be nonviolent. One monk wrote about how he did not mind the bad weather one evening because it kept the Viking's from coming. The monks eventually had to leave Ireland because the Viking attacks became too harsh; they fled from Ireland, and many monks finished their lives in a Continental abbey. Even though those monks and other monastery inhabitants had to leave their Irish homes, the rest of Europe benefited from the monks living in European countries: an abbot from Ireland became a bishop in Salzburg and a man named Dubthach copied a book of Priscian's grammar. A second period of intensified Viking activity began with the return of large Viking fleets to Waterford in 914 and to Dublin in 917, regaining control of these important trading ports. Settlements were further established at Limerick and Wexford as the Viking wars continued until the middle part of the tenth century. Over time the Vikings settled into Irish life as merchants and seamen, and the Irish formed alliances with them in their own continued internal struggles. 


Eight miles from Ballinskelligs Bay off the tip of Iveragh Peninsula is situated the island of Skellig Michael, one of the most enigmatic and remote sacred sites of all Europe. A fascinating matter about Skellig Michael is that it is the westernmost sacred site along a long line of ancient pilgrimage places running from western Ireland through France, Italy and Greece, and then onto Mt. Carmel in the Palestine. This line, sometimes called the Apollo/St. Michael axis was known thousands of years before the advent of Christianity and linked the venerated holy places of St. Michael’s Mount, Mont St Michel, Bourges, Perugia, Monte Gargano, Delphi, Athens and Delos.

Legendary accounts of Skellig indicate its importance in pagan times. The mythical early invaders of Ireland, the Tuatha de Danaan, tell of Milesius whose son Irr was buried on Skellig around 1400 BC. Another legend speaks of Daire Domhain, a ‘king of the world’, who stayed on the island. Little is known about the origins of the Celtic monastic settlement. Local lore associates it with St. Fionan, the Kerry saint, while other sources suggest that the first monks could have been Copts fleeing Roman and Byzantine persecution in the 6th century. The first known historical reference to the island comes from the end of the 5th century when the King of Munster, pursued by the King of Cashel, fled to Skellig. Another early mention of Skellig is found in the Annals of Innisfallen from 823 AD, which says: “Skellig was plundered by the heathen and Eitgal (the abbot) was carried off and he died of hunger on their hands.” From the early 9th century the Vikings repeatedly pillaged the monastery, killing many of its inhabitants. The monks endured, however, and legends tell that in 993 AD, the Viking Olav Trygvasson, who later became the king of Norway and introduced Christianity to that country, was baptized by a hermit on Skellig Michael. The site was finally abandoned sometime in the 13th century and many of the monks moved to the monastery of Ballinskelligs on the mainland.

The small cluster of six ‘beehive’ huts, two oratories and small terraces are located 714 feet above sea level, after a steep climb of 600 stone steps. Facing southward and sheltered from the winds, the site was favored by hermits and monks wanting to live far remote from normal life. While the slate rock huts appear to be round from the outside, their insides are rectangular with walls curving inward to form a corbelled roof and there are shelves and sleeping platforms built into the walls. Terraces around the huts and oratories were used to grow vegetables, which along with fish from the ocean and bird’s eggs were the main food supply of the monks. There are three wells on the islet, whose area is only 44 acres. At a rocky crag higher up on the south peak of Skellig, called the ‘Needle’s Eye’, is another oratory, inaccessible today, that was favored as a pilgrimage destination even after the monks left in the 13th century.

It is interesting to reflect on the identity of St. Michael, the patron saint of Skellig. St. Michael, almost always shown killing a ‘dragon’ with a sword, is the Christian saint that carried the souls of the worthy to heaven. Scholars have commented on the similarity between the Celtic notion of the ‘Isles of the Blessed’ where the spirits of deceased persons journeyed to the otherworld and Skellig’s later dedication to St. Michael. In this regard it is important to mention that a 13th century German source claims that Skellig was the final location of the battle between St. Patrick and the venomous snakes and devils that plagued Ireland. With the aid of St. Michael, the ‘dragon slayer’ (dragons equal snakes in ancient mythologies), we have a clear indication of old folk memories about the suppression of the pagan ways by the new religion of Christianity

 Even better, click on this:

These are not island monasteries, but it is the same idea. These Greek Orthodox monasteries are at the top of dramatic cliffs.  Called "The Metiora
dramatic  >
next in the series of "Island Monasteries": Mont Saint Michel   (next week)

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